A small herd of cattle from Michigan State University was recently slaughtered with two goals: boosting the amount of locally produced food on campus and creating a system of tracking beef from the farm to the plate.
Animal scientists at the East Lansing-based school are working on the state-funded projects starting with 10 steer and barcode tags on the beef that comes from them.
The small-scale effort has large aims, according to one of the project leaders. Associate Professor Dan Buskirk said in addition to verifying whether the beef came from a local source, shoppers eventually could use a smart phone or kiosk to find out if it came from grass-fed, grain-fed or hormone-free cattle.
"Even if it has a little bit of value to consumer, it also adds incentive to producers to get involved in these programs," Buskirk said. "A lot of these things are things producers might be doing, but consumers have no way of knowing. ... Maybe it makes it more real if it's grass-fed, grain-fed or organic."
The cattle were killed and processed late last month at off-campus commercial facilities. The frozen packages with barcode labels soon will make their way back to Michigan State and onto residence hall menus.
Buskirk said the projects grew out of Michigan's first-in-the-nation, mandatory livestock tracing program, which was adopted in 2007 to track the state's cattle herds to battle bovine tuberculosis. All cattle in Michigan herds have radio-frequency identification tags attached to their ears to provide animal health officials a tool to trace individual animals back to where they were born.
"There was a group of us here on campus asking, `How do we exploit those tags to add some additional value?'" he said.
Helping Buskirk and his colleagues take the next step are Bradenton, Fla.-based ScoringAg.com, which is developing the database, and South Portland, Maine-based Advanced Traceability Solutions, which is responsible for labeling and barcoding. He said the database is creating two-dimensional barcodes similar to what are used on mail that would provide a "wealth of information" about the animal and how it was processed.
Buskirk said his team also has applied for federal funding to help develop software that would offer a more user-friendly look and feel to the data.
Beef-tracking efforts are under way elsewhere. Technology that allows meat to be traced back to the farm has been used in Europe and other countries for more than a decade.
IdentiGEN Ltd., based in Ireland with U.S. offices in Lawrence, Kan., was founded by researchers from Trinity College in Dublin, who developed the process that assesses genetic markers in meat with DNA analysis in the mid-1990s. It's working with Richmond, Va.-based distributor Performance Food Group on supplying DNA-traceable beef to thousands of restaurants.
"DNA TraceBack uses nature's own barcode _ the DNA of each animal _ to identify and trace each cut of meat from the animal to fork," Ronan Loftus, CEO of IdentiGEN North America, said in a news release in May. "There is a lot of marketing noise out there. DNA technology cuts through that noise, and provides the ultimate proof of product integrity."
Buskirk said he sees the technology as a potentially complementary system to the work he and his colleagues are pursuing. They envision a broad-based, voluntary program that ties Michigan livestock producers with food service and retail operations.
Although that's a long way off, he said a small, focused project is the best way work out the kinks and "go beyond doing this on a farmers' market scale."
"If this catches on for grocery stores, a person can scan (the package) with a smart phone, or a kiosk could be set up inexpensively in the store," he said.